Perak becomes key election battleground for PM hopefuls

(Nikkei Asia) – Malaysia’s northern state of Perak has become a key battleground in the Nov 19 general election for reasons ranging from its large number of parliamentary seats to the fact that national and state elections are happening there at the same time.

But the most important reason is that the state has two prime minister hopefuls contesting in the general election.

“Perak is gaining so much attention because Anwar is contesting there, and he’s (Pakatan Harapan’s) poster boy to become the next prime minister,” a leader in Umno told Nikkei Asia, referring to Anwar Ibrahim, PKR president and PH chairman.

Anwar, the coalition’s prime minister candidate, had moved from his safe seat in Port Dickson, a beachfront town south of the capital Kuala Lumpur.

He will be in a four-way contest in Tambun for the first time, along with Umno’s Aminuddin Hanafiah, former MP Ahmad Faizal Azumu of Bersatu, and Abdul Rahim Tahir from Pejuang, a new political party founded by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Another star in Perak is Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, president of Umno, which leads the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. He is hoping to retain his seat in Bagan Datuk.

Perak has been allotted 24 parliamentary seats out of 222, the fourth-largest among Malaysia’s 13 states. In addition, both the ruling and opposition parties are fighting to capture Perak’s state legislature as local elections will also take place on Nov 19.

“In my opinion, Anwar has the upper hand because he’s a high-profile candidate,” said the Umno official.

However, Nazri Aziz, a six-term MP from the state, said it will not be easy for Anwar because Tambun voters are “quite disenchanted” by PH. But the retiring parliamentarian acknowledged that the opposition leader “stands a chance,” rating his odds of winning at 50-50.

Tambun, surrounded by stunning limestone hills and pomelo orchards, and known for the Lost World of Tambun theme park, has an electorate composed of 67% Malay, 20% Chinese, and 11% Indian voters, with other communities making up the balance.

BowerGroupAsia deputy managing director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani said there was “a strong possibility of Anwar winning the Tambun seat, especially with the Malay votes expected to be split” between Umno, PKR, and Perikatan Nasional, led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

Anwar has the tailwind of high name recognition among ordinary voters.

“Anwar Ibrahim is famous here, many people know him. He is one of the candidates to be prime minister,” said Ariena, a 22-year-old Tambun resident.

Referring to Faizal, known as Peja, she added, “I think the race here will be 50-50 between Anwar and Peja.”

Masitah, 28, another resident of Tambun, said: “The only name I recognise is Anwar Ibrahim. I don’t know anyone else.” She works at her mother’s restaurant and said she is not interested in politics, but said her uncle “has been telling her” to vote.

Asked the name of Anwar’s party, she said she did not know. “I have not decided who to vote for. I need to Google to look for more information on the candidates and their respective parties.”

However, Hisomuddin Bakar, executive director of think tank Ilham Centre, predicted that Anwar will have a thorny path to a seat in Parliament.

“Anwar is hoping the increase in new youth voters will give him an advantage,” said Hisomuddin. “To win, I feel, is not an easy thing for Anwar. This is because Tambun has the largest Malay village in Malaysia … which in the past was a ‘fixed-deposit’ (for Umno-led BN).”

Another potential candidate for prime minister from the state is Umno’s Zahid, but his position is unusual. The ruling party has officially said its candidate for prime minister is the incumbent, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, but a party insider acknowledged that Zahid “has ambitions to become prime minister.”

“Most importantly, he wants to remain as party president. (But) Umno is very hierarchical. If (the) party president wants to become prime minister, who is going to say no?” said BowerGroupAsia’s Asrul.

“Zahid has strong grassroots machinery in Bagan Datuk, and he should not be discounted despite his ongoing (court) case,” he added.

In September, Zahid was cleared by the High Court on 40 charges of corruption and abuse of power, but still faces another 47 counts of criminal breach of trust, corruption and money laundering related to a charitable organisation. He has denied all wrongdoing.

James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at Australia’s University of Tasmania, also reckoned Zahid hoped to win the country’s top post.

“Of course he wants to be prime minister. … Whoever becomes prime minister largely depends on the results (of the election),” said Chin.

“(If Zahid’s BN) doesn’t need anyone and can form a government on its own, maybe (by winning) 125 seats or above, then the answer is yes, he can be prime minister … as he has kicked out a lot of (Umno) warlords who were against him.”

Perak residents, however, appear more concerned about the soaring cost of living, which has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

“I get scared just thinking and seeing food prices, which keep going up and up every time I go to the market,” said Tambun resident Ariena, who is hoping to get a place at a university to study information technology.

“I hope whoever wins the elections can do something about the high food prices and improve the economy,” she said.